MTV visits the smaller, idlyllic Austin of 1985

I have read references to MTV’s profile of the indie-scene here circa 1985 that evidently exposed Daniel Johnston and others (Zeitgeist, Glass Eye, Joe King Carrasco, Timbuk 3) to a national audience, and finally took a look for myself. The most unexpected part is how similar the themes are to what people talk about today: Austin is growing so much, bringing people here,  but this threatens the beloved particularities of camaraderie, folksy hanging-out, musicians wanting to make art-for-art’s sake, good venues to see the local talent, the laid-back vibe, and so forth.

“They say that 90 people a day move to Austin. The signs of growth are everywhere. Changes are not always welcome, however. Some of Austin’s best clubs have disappeared. Liberty Lunch, one of tonight’s featured clubs, won’t be around much longer, either. Through it all, the bands survive; they play at parties, outdoors, and sometimes, yes, even in real garages …”

Peter Zaremba, MTV, 1985

So, Austin’s precious vibe, prodigious growth, and impending corruption-by-popularity turn out to have been a big topics before the 1990’s. Now, I gather that it’s been all downhill for some since the cheap-rent, dime-bag, and skinny-dipping-with hippy-girls-era circa 1973 ended (the original version of the “Austin was cool right before you moved here” meme?) In any event, it’s interesting to contemplate the relation between where we are now, compared to those ’80’s indie/alt-rockers that MTV followed around to backyard barbecues, day jobs, and fun Liberty Lunch shows.

Apparently being on MTV was a much bigger deal in those days, (recall, the Internet was the province of the Defense Department and computer science people back then, so MTV is how many people heard new music) as Daniel Johnston is clearly beaming at his moment in the sun. I really have no sense of how much of a career helper this was to Johnston. It’s strange seeing him as a boyish, quirky, smiling bohemian hanging at a party with everyone else, as he has always seemed pretty middle-aged since he came on my radar.


Perhaps the images of Kurt Cobain wearing a t-shirt with the iconic Hi How Are You Frog? came from this nexus?

Of the featured bands, Glass Eye seemed the most interesting to me.

They have a funky-arty hip-nerd vibe going, like they listened to a lot of Talking Heads and punk-disco. I think they still play occasionally. Glass Eye, why don’t you do a show with Reverse X Rays?

Zeitgeist got tagged with the New Sincerity meme by admiring critics, and were probably one break away from hitting it big-time (having to change their name to the Reivers seems to have hurt their cause). They have energy and charm but maybe I have done college radio for too many years, they seem pretty similar to many other primitive, passionate, beat-driven alt-rock ensembles. Their crowd seemed to have been having a great time at their Liberty Lunch gig though.

The more I think about it, despite the significant time elapsed, it seems Austin indie ’85 really is quite directly the precursor of Austin indie 2011, despite the mass-marketing of alterna-rock in the 1990’s, the rise of the Internet, and the transformation of the record industry into the flailing, cash-starved, almost marginal business of today. My reconstruction of subcultural history is that the reverberations of punk and new wave continued on through the 1980’s, with opportunities open for young, hungry, savvy groups in the wake of American “alternative” bands done well such as Talking Heads, B-52’s, and later, REM. In Austin, that ’80’s young bohemian culture documented by MTV in ’85 was explored more thoroughly, albeit in a non-linear, dreamlike fashion with Richard Linklater’s 1991 breakthrough Slacker. The Lollapalooza festivals starting in 1991 (the so-called “year punk broke“) represented a substantial increase in national interest in “alternative” music before Nirvana’s Nevermind blew the lid off the roof. Since then the party-people DIY culture of today that is now loosely the heir to indie-rock seems to me to have parted ways with it’s alternative-rock cousin…but there are still plenty of backyard parties with bands setting up in the living room.

Really, the East Side of 2011 is pretty similar to the idyllic Austin ’85, actually: reasonable if not cheap rent, lots of socializing, seeing your friends and people from bands at parties, and so forth. One difference: I get a real sense that UT Austin is regarded as a more elite place nowadays, and while not actually that expensive in a relative sense, due to it’s admissions policy UT is not a practical option for many or most locals anymore. My impression is that UT used to be easy enough to get into for the average college-aged person, but not so much anymore. There is something a bit innocent about the Austin indies of ’85 in the sense that it at least seems like an open-minded world blending freaks, party people, nerds, artists,  various rockers, workers, and students, some of who were very middle-class, some not. I sense in the  Austin 2011 music scene (though not on my part of the East Side) a whiff of class tension, where people who are UT students are too easily labeled/written off as “rich kids”. Now, there is a long tradition of working class pride resulting in wonderful rock music, and there is also a rich parade of arty dropouts, bookish aesthetes, and other middle-class rockers that accomplished great things. More the merrier to all of it say I, though people with their antennae already unfurled may be quite sensitive about who is or isn’t privileged, or what is or isn’t “authentic” or “cool”, which makes me inclined to dress quite fancy in a nice suitcoat if I have the odd visit to a punk warehouse. So maybe it’s not all one big united scene the way it (maybe) was during those last years of the Cold War. T’was ever thus… Timbuk 3 had their breakout hit “Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” mocking mid-1980’s undergrad yuppies-to-be.

The MTV vids are here and here. A nice writeup of the MTV visit can be found here.


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